5 Principles for Congregational Worship
Topic: Expository Passage: Colossians 3:15-17
Colossians 3:15-17 (NKJV)
15 And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful.
16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.
17 And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.
Two weeks ago I preached this text, and I mentioned that I was planning to and preach a second message on the practical significance of this text to congregational worship.
Therefore, today, we are going to dip our toes into the “worship wars,” as they’re often called. This debate has raged among Christians over the last 50 years or so regarding musical styles in particular but also over issues like instrumentation, lighting, visual aids, bodily motions, and many other things. Next to the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism, I don’t know of another subject that arouses more passionate differences among Christians than the debate over worship styles.
For example when I was in Bible college if worship came up in class, we all knew we weren’t going to get far that day because the hands would shoot up all over the classroom. And then it would bleed over into the dining hall and the dormitories. Many of you have probably been in similar conversations.
And for the most part it’s not that we just like to argue (though some certainly do). Worship matters because it affects us personally, and it affects the health of the entire church. We should care that it is done well.
And above all else, we really need to understand what the Bible actually says about worship, because many of the debates have little to do with the text of Scripture. And one of the most significant verses in the NT regarding congregational worship is here in Colossians 3:16. Therefore, I want to take a Sunday to meditate on what God says here about worship, to wrestle with the significance it has for our worship at Life Point, and to reflect on how we as a church are trying to honor what God has said. I’d like to offer “5 Principles for Congregational Worship” that God communicates in this text. First…
I. Our worship must be gospel-centered.
Explanation: Notice that v. 16 begins by commanding us, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” I said two weeks ago that the “word of Christ” in the context of Colossians summarizes the entire message of Christ—his work on the cross, his resurrection from the dead, and the empowerment he gives to live a new life. It’s the gospel and all its implications for Christian living. And God says that this message must dwell richly among God’s people when we gather for worship. In light of this, I’d like to park on two applications that I briefly made 2 weeks ago. First…
The gospel must be the main subject of our worship. Sadly the gospel is not the primary focus of the service is in most American churches. For some churches the focus is mostly on politics or social concerns.
And others emphasize topical preaching that is focused on helping you live a better life. You’re going to learn about finances, having a good marriage, and how to be happy. And in still other churches, the focus will be on my effort toward pleasing God. And all of these things most definitely have their place. First Corinthians 14 is clear that worship must be edifying. But ultimately worship is not fundamentally about improving my life; it is about glorifying God for the grace he has given in the gospel.
And Colossians 2:6–7 are very clear that true edification must be built on the gospel. The only way we can develop true godliness and walk in joy is to walk in Christ. And so don’t ever get tired of talking about the gospel in worship. We want to sing the gospel, pray the gospel, and preach the gospel constantly. A second application is that…
The gospel must energize our worship. This spring I was talking about worship with a visitor. He mentioned how he really loved how music created an atmosphere of worship in another church. He said, “It was wonderful. There were no words being sung, but people were tapping their leg worshipping the Lord with the beat of the music.”
As I thought about his comment later, I thought, “That’s not worship.” According to this verse, worship is my response to God’s character and works. But his comment reflects how a lot of people think. They equate worship with a feeling. Certainly feelings are an important aspect of worship. Worship should inspire godly affections.
But at the end of the day, what drives our worship must not be the music or the lights or the talents of the performers. All of these things must complement the gospel, not overwhelm it. Therefore, our desire at Life Point is to constantly exalt God and the gospel so that our worship is our glad response to what God has done for us. The second principle in this text is…
II. Our worship must be congregationally driven.
Explanation: I said last time that “in you” is better translated in context as “among you.” Therefore, the picture this verse paints is that the gospel is to work richly among God’s people and this work of the gospel is to drive them to teach and admonish through song. Therefore, God is saying that as the gospel works in your life you become the driving force behind our worship.
This is such an important truth to emphasize in our day because Spirit-filled Christians are not the energizing force in most churches. I’ve seen traditional churches pull some goofy stunts to “wake people up” or use what are essentially silly songs to get worship “going.”
And on the progressive side, the energy of the service typically comes from the platform and the technology. They have a group of talented musicians and lots of instrumentation, and then they amplify their voices and instruments loudly throughout the room. The congregation is singing, but the sound system is so loud that the people can hardly hear each other. The congregation is certainly not the energizing force of the worship. They are essentially spectators. The end result is a ready-mix worship that is not rooted in the power of the Spirit but in human ability. So how do we promote congregationally-driven worship? I’d like to note three criteria that are important to us. First…
Simple Instrumentation: Instruments are not the enemy of congregational worship when they are used to support the congregation. This is because when we sing together no one wants to sing a solo, and if the room feels dead, people generally get quieter. Therefore, the instruments should give support or a foundation that lets people sing with confidence. And it really is amazing the difference it makes when that support is there. But again, we want it to remain in a support role, not a driving role. And so our goal is to provide simple instrumentation that supports passionate, confident congregational worship. A second criteria is…
Accessible Songs: What I mean by this is that we want to sing songs with a text you understand and with a melody that you can sing well. We don’t sing songs in Spanish or Latin, because as interesting as that may be, you can’t worship if you don’t know what the song means. Now it is true that some of our songs use big words or obscure biblical references, but we try to occasionally explain what those things are because we want you to grow a full knowledge of Scripture and sing with your mind.
By accessible I also mean that we need to sing songs that are not so musically complex that the average person can’t sing them with confidence. I’ve been in places where they do all sorts of key changes, or they use really High-Church music that is hard to do. And excellence is important to honoring God with our worship, but we aren’t putting on a concert on Sundays. Our songs need to be simple enough that we can do them.
And you also need to know them. We all understand that when you are struggling with a new tune, you aren’t doing a lot of worship. This is why we keep a list of only around 100 songs that we do so that you can get to know the songs and sing them with confidence. A third criteria is…
Music that Resonates: The reason we don’t just chant lyrics is because good music highlights the truth of the song and promotes affections in keeping with the truths in the song.
But the challenge is that our response to music is largely affected by our culture. You see this about anytime you watch a missionary presentation. Different cultures worship in different ways. You even see this difference between different areas of our country or between generations. I know that there is oftentimes a gap within our congregation in how certain songs resonate with those who are older and those who are younger because we grew up in different contexts. And we see that gap in your faces, and we hear it in the volume when we sing certain songs.
Therefore, we try by the grace of God to pick songs that have stood the test of time or that we believe will stand the test of time and that resonate with our congregation today so that we can sing confidently and passionately in response to the marvelous truths they contain. We want to enable you to drive our worship in way that a human production never could. A third principle in this text…
III. Our worship must be instructional and challenging.
Again, we miss this so often. In more conservative churches I’ve heard people refer to the singing as “preparation for the sermon.” The assumption is that the sermon is the point, and the singing is simply a way to wake people up, and to get their minds engaged by the time the sermon starts, as if they don’t need to be engaged while they sing.
In other contexts the music is just a way to show off our musical talents and to put on a show. We don’t have a problem with this here, but I’ve been so frustrated at times listening to special must that isn’t about highlighting the truth of the song but about giving the musician an opportunity to show off all the weird tricks he can do on the piano or his vocal talents.
And in many other churches, the music is mostly just about getting people amped up. They sing songs with no doctrinal substance but, hey, it’s fun or it makes me feel close to God.
But God says in v. 16 that we are to “teach and admonish one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” God is clear that our singing is intended to instruct and challenge the participants. I’d like to highlight 3 requirements to doing this well.
Accurate: You don’t have to dig around hymnody very long to learn that a lot of Christian songs are not theologically accurate, or at the very least they are not precise. It’s very important to us that the songs we sing are true to what the Bible teaches. But accuracy alone doesn’t mean a song is instructional. 2nd, it must be…
Theological: The lyrics of our songs are incredibly important to us, and I hope that you pay attention to them because they are full of powerful truths that can impact your heart and mind. Kevin DeYoung states, “Congregational singing is part of the teaching ministry of the church. Church musicians and pastors should ask themselves: if our people learned their theology from our songs what would they know in twenty years about God, the cross, the resurrection, the offices of Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, creation, justification, election, regeneration, the church…and all the other fundamental doctrines of the faith.”
He’s right. Our song should provide a balanced, theological diet. And this includes our children’s ministry. We don’t sing with the kids just to fill time or to have fun with them. Children’s music is a way to teach truth to our kids and how to participate in congregational worship. This is also why whenever someone does an instrumental number that we don’t regularly sing we put the words on the screen. The offertory is not a concert piece or way to fill an awkward silence. It’s there to point you to truth. 3rd, our songs must be…
Complementary: In particular I mean that the music must complement the lyrics. There’s an old hymn called “Love Lifted Me” that begins, “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore, very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more.” These are sober words, but the tune sounds like something from the circus. At least in our day, the melody does not complement the lyrics; it distracts from them. If our songs are going to teach and admonish, that’s a problem. The music must shine a light on the truth. 4th, if our songs are going to be instructional and challenging, they must be…
Memorable: Again, here’s a quote from Kevin DeYoung. “Pastors, parents, worship leaders: Are you teaching any songs that can be sung a cappella around a hospital bed in 50 years?” That’s a good point. We want our songs to minister to you throughout the week, not just on Sundays. And we’ve all seen that happen. A good hymn is memorable, and it puts truth deep in your heart, and it ministers grace over and over.
Conclusion: And so I hope that you will approach our singing with the heart of this verse. Pay attention to the lyrics and learn them, so that you will be instructed and challenged. And then sing them with joy and conviction so that you will teach and admonish those around you. The 4th principle is…
IV. Our worship must be wisely planned.
Explanation: Notice the little phrase “in all wisdom.” I believe the NKJV has put the comma in the wrong place and that “in all wisdom” describes how we are to teach and admonish each other through song. Therefore, the idea is that we should wisely plan how we teach and admonish through our music.
I am very grateful for the intentionality with which Pastor Kris goes about planning our worship. We don’t pick our songs by drawing straws or by what we like. No, I mentioned a moment ago that we have a list of songs we draw from, and there is a lot of thought that goes into which songs are on that list.
And hopefully you’ve noticed that there is a theme for our singing every week that is listed in the bulletin. I typically meditate on it in my pastoral prayer, and it links together the songs and the Scripture reading. Therefore, every week our singing is an opportunity to dwell on a truth about God and to respond to that truth with praise and thanksgiving.
Worship is serious business, and it’s important that you know that we take it very seriously. And I would challenge you to do the same, and plan wisely to engage in worship. Prepare your heart beforehand. Get here early, find your seat before we start, and just take a deep breath. And then don’t let your mind wander all over the place while we sing. Work to pay attention. And during the sermon, don’t be a passive listener. Be a dynamic hearer who is asking God to work and engaging your mind with the text and its implications for life. The 5th principle I want to emphasize is…
V. Our worship must be God-focused.
Explanation: Verse 16 concludes with, “Singing with grace (or really gratitude) in your hearts to the Lord.” God says that the goal of our worship is to express gratitude to God for who he is and for all that he has done for us. He is the focus, not us. And this emphasis fits perfectly within what v. 17 says about purpose of the entire Christian life. God commands us, “Whatever you do in word or deed (which obviously includes our worship), do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” All of life is to be an act of worship to the Lord, and obviously our worship as a church should be no different.
This ought to be obvious, but it’s certainly not natural. We all naturally look out for #1, ourselves. And we all naturally evaluate worship based on my preferences and how it impacted my heart.
And many churches and organizations have turned this focus into big business. Churches have invested massive amounts of money into researching what people want in worship—and not just what Christians want. They’ve invested a lot in determining how to create a worship experience that unbelievers will enjoy. And they’ve created a worship context that feels like Starbucks or a nightclub or a political rally.
And I want to be clear that we should be very serious about worshipping in a way that fits our context and culture. We don’t want to be weird for the sake of being weird. But when we are more concerned about a survey of Millennials than we are about what God has said in the Bible, that’s a problem. The Bible is clear that the assembly of the church is not fundamentally about reaching the lost or packing the pew. It is about honoring our God and Savior.
And if we think that God will basically accept anything we bring him as long as it’s from the heart, then we haven’t been paying attention to our Bibles. God spent a lot of time on Mt. Sinai telling Israel exactly how to worship him, and God was angry a few days later when they ignored his instructions and worshipped him using a golden calf. And not long after that when Nadab and Abihu didn’t follow God’s instructions regarding the kind of incense they used in worship, God struck them dead. And when Uzzah disregarded God’s command not to touch the ark, and used his hands to stop it from falling, God again struck him dead.
God cares a lot about how we represent him in worship, and we better be far more concerned about what pleases him than we are about what we like or what will pack our building. And I think it’s important to add that our good and God’s glory are never ultimately in conflict. Doing it our way may give us a bigger high or more growth, but only the hand of God working through his wise instructions will produce real change and long-term maturity. In light of the fact that we must have God-focused worship, let me offer 3 practical conclusions. First…
We must obey God in how we worship. Again, if worship is about God, then we better go to his Word to learn what honors him. By the grace of God that’s what we want to do at Life Point. And let me add that if you ever have to look for a church, I pray that you are far more concerned about finding a church that is zealous for the glory of God than you are about finding one that makes you comfortable. Second…
We must focus on God as we worship. Before you come to church each work, your primary prayer for the day shouldn’t be that you get all your thank you cards passed out or that your family looks good. Your primary prayer shouldn’t be that you gain some practical wisdom or help with a problem. No our prayer should always be that God would meet with us and show us his glory. We want to see him. And we should worship with this focus. Pay attention to what the songs say about the character and works of God. During the sermon, don’t just look for practical tips on how to live; look for God in the text of Scripture. And then see God through the work of his grace in his people, and show his grace in how you fellowship. Third…
We must praise and thank God for this character and works (Heb 13:15). I am glad that our weekly worship doesn’t require us all bringing animals to sacrifice. The BBQ would be great, but it would be pretty crazy, pretty smelly, and pretty dirty. But according to this verse, the fact that we don’t bring animal sacrifices doesn’t mean that we don’t bring any sacrifice. Rather we offer “the fruit of our lips,” meaning praise and thanksgiving. Our worship is a “sacrifice of praise.” God has been so good to us. What an awesome privilege that we can express our love and please our God in how we worship.
And then consider your participation in congregational worship. Do you prepare your body and soul to offer God a worthy sacrifice of praise? And what kind of sacrifice do you offer by how you sing, by how you hear his Word, and by how you fellowship with his people? Worship is a wonderful privilege and an awesome responsibility. Let’s give thanks for the opportunity, and let’s commit by the grace of God to bring a worthy sacrifice.
But let me conclude by returning to my first point. True worship must be centered in the gospel. Therefore, if you have never received gospel, you can’t truly worship God. God wants you here, and you can certainly benefit by observing, but you can’t truly participate. Won’t you come to Christ today and receive the forgiveness that he offers in Christ so that the “word of Christ” will dwell in your heart and gush out in the kind of glad worship God loves.